Pitching duo leads the way for Illini softball

The Illinois softball team has struggled on the plate early in its 2012 campaign, but one thing keeping the Illini in games has been the consistent performance of staff ace Pepper Gay.

Gay has started five of the team’s eight games and leads the Illini (3-5) with a 2-1 record and a 1.38 ERA in 25 and 1/3 innings.

“In the preseason when we all got back (on campus), we all had our own agendas,” Gay said. “Mine was to work on being more aggressive and getting ahead of batters and not walking as many.”

Gay struggled in her sophomore season, going 20-14 with a 2.69 ERA, following a stellar 2010 campaign in which she posted a 16-1 record and a 1.46 ERA.

Gay, a native of Avondale Estate, Ga., has split innings this season with fellow junior Jackie Guy. Both players came into the program in the same year and have watched each other progress.

“We’ve got really good team camaraderie, especially within our own position,” said Guy, a native of Buena Park, Calif. “We make it fun because we’re always driving each other to be better.“

Although Guy’s numbers are not as impressive as Gay’s after two weeks of play (1-4, 4.70 ERA), Guy has played a pivotal role on the team, throwing 22 and 1/3 innings and holding conference foe Michigan State to one hit Feb. 11.

“They’ve had some great performances this season,” head coach Terri Sullivan said. “They’ve had to lead us because our offense hasn’t gotten a big spark yet. We’ve won with pitching. They’ve had shutouts, they’ve had one-hitters and two-hitters, and we can’t ask too much more of them.”

Both pitchers have had their ups and downs this season. Last Saturday, Gay and Guy struggled against a loaded Tennessee offense, giving up a total of eight runs between them. But Gay followed up that performance with a two-hit complete game shutout against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

“I don’t know if any of our players were more excited to get the season started than them,” Sullivan said. “They both had surgery in the offseason, and they’ve both worked really hard to rehab and get back to where we need them. “

Gay, who had her back operated on, contributed her hot start to confidence gained in the preseason.

“When we all got back (on campus) in January, we all had our own agendas,” Gay said. “Mine was to work on being more aggressive and getting ahead of batters and not walking as many. We scrimmaged a lot, and I got to face our hitters. That really helped with my confidence.”

Guy, who had surgery on her knee, finds her confidence in her teammates.

“It’s easy to be confident with the defense that we have,” she said. “Pretty much any time the ball is put in play, it’s taken care of.”

Sullivan has watched the pitchers’ progression for three years now and has noticed their change in demeanor.

“They’re still getting better and better,” Sullivan said. “They’re using a lot of their pitches more, they’re hitting their spots better. And physically I think they are stronger. I think they understand that a team only goes as far as its pitchers take them.”